Some lucky Northwest schools have a case of the blues

Annette Taborn has made it her prerogative to bring the blues to classrooms all across the region ... in a good way.
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Youth participating in Northwest Blues in Schools.

Annette Taborn has made it her prerogative to bring the blues to classrooms all across the region ... in a good way.

Of all the time Annette Taborn has spent conducting the Northwest Blues in Schools program, there is one particular afternoon that stands out in her memory. A young girl, from her wheelchair, was sizing up the tall stage upon which her peers would, in four weeks, perform what they’d learned from Taborn and her group of hired musicians. But the stage was too high. The girl’s aid pronounced she would not be able to participate.

“But she leapt out of the wheel chair,” said Taborn, with a smile, “and got on stage and was able to play! She wanted to play music with us so bad – and she ended up having a blast.”

This is the type of inspiration NW Blues in Schools has been offering in the Seattle area for more than 10 years.

Taborn, along with professional musicians she’s hired, works with a class of 10-20 students (from 3rd grade to high school age) every school day for four weeks. The students, over the first few days, are taught the history of the blues, its genesis from post-slavery, the migration of blacks from the deep south into northern states, Florida and the West, and the different styles of blues.

“They learn how people used music to soothe the pain,” she says. Then they are taught bass, drums, guitar, harmonica and singing. At the end of the four-week program, the students put on a concert for the school, which includes speeches about a particular musician, from Muddy Waters to Memphis Minnie.

“If we’re working with an art class,” says Taborn, “we ask the kids to draw pictures of the musicians. If we’re working with a history class, we talk more about the history of the music. We use the music itself to enhance whatever it is the schools are doing.”

The entire four-week program costs somewhere between $6,000-$8,000 to put on; money that pays the teachers, the hired musicians, and leaves each student a harmonica of his or her own. The rest of the equipment — mics, guitars, base, drums — is provided by Taborn herself.

But the program is now in danger of folding for lack of funding.

The story of PNW Blues in Schools starts in 1994, when Taborn, an established singer and harmonica player, was living in Kalamazoo, MI. Drawing from her musical acumen, she started one of the first Blues in Schools programs in the state at Spring Valley Elementary School. At the same time, unbeknownst to her, James “Curley” Cooke, an original member of the Steve Miller Band, was starting a Blues in Schools program here in the Northwest. A distinguished musician, Cooke had played with John Lee Hooker, Boz Scaggs and Jerry Garcia.

In 2005, when Taborn moved to Seattle, she and Cooke met serendipitously. It wasn't long before they began putting on Blues in Schools together — some 30 times, until Cooke passed away in 2011. Taborn has continued the program, most recently in October at the Madrona Middle School.

Often the kids, she says, complain when starting out about their fingers hurting, or the strings being too hard to play. But by the end, the magic of collaboration happens.

“The concert we put on,” says Taborn, “features all the kids and all the music teachers at once. It starts chaotic, but as we get closer it begins to work out. Everybody sings and everybody plays harmonica. We play a 10-15 song set. Occasionally there will be a standout student who wants to do a solo!”

The program has even extended to Taborn’s daughter, the multi-talented Shana Cleveland of the wildly successful band, La Luz. Cleveland, a skilled songwriter and guitar player, taught guitar a couple of times with Blues in Schools.

“One cool thing that I noticed as a teacher is that I could see the positive effects that the program had on kids' self esteems,” Cleveland says. “My mom is really good with kids, she's great at reaching students who might normally be too shy to speak up in class or who are considered to have attitude problems. This program teaches students to work together creatively and see their classmates in new ways.”

If the program is to continue to succeed, though, Taborn needs funding — something she's found it difficult to raise alone after Cooke's death. She is currently working on grant applications through the city of Seattle. Previously, she’s received money from Microsoft, among other places.

She says some of this money would go to hiring a diverse staff. “My goal moving forward,” says Taborn, “is to get younger people involved. I want to have the classes be taught by folks of different races, genders and ages. If we had an all-black team or an all-white team, it wouldn’t work as well.”

Taborn said that every school she’s worked with has asked her to come back. She has collected thank you letters, sent to her by school principals, in neat individual folders in a big black binder (to date, over 50 letters). In 2010, Julie Breidenbach, principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary, wrote, “I was amazed at the music our kids were making almost immediately with your hands on approach… What a gift to our kids who are often under-served in the area of music.”

Carolyn Meyer, Director of the Louis Braille School, wrote to Cooke and Taborn in 2007. “Your program, Blues in Schools, is a fine example of what devotion, dedication, and love of children can accomplish. We look forward to welcoming you back.”

With hope — and a little bit of funding — Taborn’s Blues In Schools program will be back to schools like Louis Braille.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti

Jake Uitti is the co-founder and Managing Editor of The Monarch Review. He plays in the band, The Great Um, and works at The Pub at Third Place.